I am Ahmed.
Other than the alphabets and counting from zero to ten, that is all I can remember from five years of learning Arabic during my elementary school years in Dubai. Ana Ahmed. I am Ahmed. It's the first sentence we were taught when learning conversational Arabic. Much like when I learned "Soy Isabel" in 6th grade Spanish when I moved to Florida.
A couple of weeks ago, a 14-year-old boy named Ahmed brought to school his homemade digital clock. He showed it to his engineering teacher, who reportedly said it was nice but advised Ahmed to not show the creation to anyone else.
But when the clock beeped in English class and another teacher discovered the device, school officials were informed. By 6th period, Ahmed was led out of his class by the principal and police officers to a room where he was interrogated without the presence of his parents.
He was asked repeatedly what the device was and if it was a bomb; he answered repeatedly that it was a clock. An hour and a half later, the Irving, Texas police led Ahmed out of the school in handcuffs and took him to a juvenile detention center, where they fingerprinted him, took a mugshot photo, and charged him with having a hoax bomb. Once social media got wind of the story, the public furor began, as did the many well-wishes and encouraging words for Ahmed, from the likes of President Obama, Facebook's Mark Zuckerburg, Google, Twitter, and even a professor from MIT. Two days after the police arrested the high school freshman, charges against Ahmed were dropped.
It's been two weeks now and the story has nearly disappeared from social media. Maybe Ahmed's 15 minutes of fame are up. And yet, I cannot help but think about what this incident says about our society. I keep thinking about all the Ahmeds I know, from various backgrounds, religions and ethnicities. The young boys in my family and in my community. This could have been someone I know, someone I love.
Ahmed has said that when the police officers were interrogating him, he felt like he was being accused of being a terrorist, something he had been called by other children even before this incident. And he thinks it's because he is a Muslim.
I'd love to think that this is just a child overreacting, but then I also live in reality. A reality that labels Muslims as "suspicious" simply because they are Muslims. There is no evidence to suggest that Ahmed shared any fundamentalist ideologies that would be cause for concern when he brought his clock to school. And yet even Bill Maher, a liberal by many standards, said that maybe one of the adults in Ahmed's life should talk with him and explain that "one of the reasons why it happened to you is because in our religion we were responsible for 9/11, the Madrid bombing, the London bombing, the Bali disco tech bombing, the Kenya mall bombing . . . ."
Really? Ahmed's parents should have warned their 14-year-old son against innovating something that someone else may view as suspicious just because his name is Ahmed Mohammed? And so my heart breaks for Ahmed, the 14-year old Muslim boy. I am sad for the Muslim children in our country who seemingly have to carry the burden of sharing their religion with terrorists and jihadists, who have to suffer the burden of our prejudice, who are rarely identified as American without being identified as Muslim-American.
Ahmed said that when he was taken into the school room to be interrogated, one of the officers, who had never met Ahmed, saw him and said, "Yup. That's who I thought it was." Ahmed is the same shade of brown that I am, that most of the people in my family are. That shade of brown that some consider to be not truly American and that all too often leads to people asking, "Where are you from?" and then, "No, I mean, where are you really from?" or "Where is your family originally from?"
Unfortunately, all too often, parents of brown and black children, and young boys and men in particular, have to teach their children not just to respect authority but to give in to it, to keep their heads down and their voices low. A few days before Ahmed was arrested, retired tennis star James Blake, who is biracial, was arrested with excessive force in a case of mistaken identity involving credit card fraud.
In an interview with CNN, Blake explained that when the New York police officer threw him to the ground, face down, "The first words out of my mouth are I'm 100 percent cooperating. And that was to put my hands behind my back and do whatever [the officer] said." That's the sad reality of far too many brown and black people in the face of authority. That we will be judged by the color of our skin and yet, we will do our best to cooperate. And so my heart aches for Ahmed, the dark-skinned boy, who looks like he could be my nephew, or my son, for that matter. Because we have to teach these children, our children, to risk their sense of self-worth to preserve their safety even at the hands of people who are there to protect them.
Ahmed enjoys tinkering with things. He has previously made radios, a USB router, and even a Bluetooth speaker, and the digital clock was something he put together quickly. This is a kid who was wearing a NASA shirt to school the day he was arrested. He wants to go to MIT and he likes science. Science. The "S" in "STEM," that field that we are trying to push more American students into so they can better compete with the rest of the world.
For a country that wants to excite its youth about areas of science, technology, engineering, and math, maybe we should put our teachers and school administrators on the same bandwagon. Admittedly, the digital clock Ahmed made did not look like a clock you would pick up at Target or Ikea; then again, I've never made a digital clock. Then again, I did not have an engineering teacher in the 9th grade. But Ahmed did, and that's who he showed the clock to first.
Not just his science teacher, but his engineering teacher. So when another teacher and the principal were concerned that the device was a possible bomb, why didn't someone talk with Ahmed and maybe even the engineering teacher first? Why the jump to calling the police to whom the device looked like a bomb? Never mind that the bomb squad wasn't called; so much for a perceived bomb threat. Ahmed is a kid who voluntarily and excitedly showed his teacher a clock he made, displaying the kind of ingenuity that we want our children to have. And so my heart aches for Ahmed, the young boy who likes science. Are we telling our children that they should only be interested in science and engineering as those subjects relate to school projects but that they should not otherwise delve into these areas on their own time? And that if they do, their innovations are only presentable if they are tidy because a wire here or there could give the wrong signal? Can we truly encourage a generation of children to become scientists and engineers if we as adults do not know how to embrace the talent and recognize that their journeys will involve prototypes with room for improvement?
Forget his being Muslim, or brown, or a kid interested in science. At the most basic level of this story, a 14-year old was handcuffed at school for no fault of his own. How does that not outrage us? I get it: given the school shootings in America, our schools have a zero-tolerance policy. After all, it could have been a bomb. So we think that we can never be too careful. But at what price? This was not a student who made a threat in jest or brought or concealed a weapon on school grounds. Ahmed was excited about his invention and proudly showed it to his teacher.
Don't we want our children to have that outlook about school? To be excited about their ideas, to invent and to create, to think outside the box that we often push them into, and to bring that positivity into the school? So then shouldn't we expect their schools to be environments in which those ideas are welcomed and encouraged with equal excitement? Where the first response, however guarded, is to start a conversation and not an investigation? Schools should be on the side of their students and should give them the benefit of the doubt.
If an investigation is warranted, then so be it. But at some point, the MacArthur High School administration realized that there was no bomb, and it was just a clock. And the principal should have stepped in and spoken to the police on behalf of Ahmed, a 14-year-old student at his school. Instead, Ahmed was questioned for over an hour without his parents and the police later said that Ahmed had not been forthcoming enough. How many times do you have to say something isn't a bomb before you're considered to be sufficiently forthcoming?! The zero-tolerance policy should also protect students like Ahmed against overly zealous policies, like the one that resulted in Ahmed's arrest. Instead, it resulted in an innocent 14-year-old in a room with police and no one on his side. My heart aches for Ahmed the student.
I don't put race at the center of every issue. I try to see both sides of every story. I try to understand. Yet, in this case, no matter how much I try to see past the possibility of religious intolerance or race, my heart aches because there are many Ahmeds in my life and I want them to be safe. He is every child I know and every student in our schools. And he deserves for us to see him for who he is and not who we suspect him to be. To be safe in the company of adults and authority, not fall victim to their powers. To know that he is allowed to be, to think, to create, with our blessings, not our prejudices.